This past Sunday our sermon looked at the issue of evil and suffering, raising the question of Theodicy (the theological question about God’s goodness and sovereignty in the face of suffering). Ancient philosopher raised the question with these words:
Either God wants to abolish evil and cannot,; or he can, but does not want to; or he cannot and does not want to. If he wants to but cannot, he is impotent. If he can, and does not want to, he is wicked. But if god both can and wants to abolish evil, then how comes evil into the world?
I sought to answer the question on a large scale in the sermon, but beyond the philosophical question, the Bible does give us some understanding of what is in the heart of God as He sovereignly controls evil and suffering. While this list is not exhaustive, it can show us that God uses the hardest events in our lives to bring about good (Romans 8:28). Here are ten reasons God ordains suffering and the existence of evil in our lives and in the world.
1. As an act of judgement (Romans 1:18) – There is no denying the reality that suffering in our world is the result of sin. Sin cuts us off from our God, severing relationship and removing ourselves from the glory of His grace. God hates evil, and is determined to act against evil. We like this when evil is done to us (we want God to stand with us when we suffer), but we don’t like this when we are the perpetrators of sin and evil. Yet, God judges sin, and He acts in history to demonstrates his righteousness and justice. There are all kinds of stories of God’s judgment in Scriptures. He judges the world in the Noah story. He judges entire cultures (Sodom and Gomorrah), he judges kings and kingdoms, and He judges individuals. God’s judgment brings suffering, but it is also a reminder that He is active in opposing evil. We pray for evil to end, but the true implications are this, if God eradicates all evil, then I am in a world of trouble. Hardship and suffering can be a result of God’s judgment, and if it does not kill us it is also filled with grace, offering hardened people the opportunity to repent and trust in Christ.
2. To discipline His children (Hebrews 12:5-6) – As a loving Father, God disciplines His children. When we sin and stray from God we need to realize that our joy and flourishing depends on living in faith and repentance near to the heart of our Father. At times God sends hardship and suffering into life as discipline to teach and train His kids toward holiness and faith.
3. To produce fruit in our lives (James 1:2-4) – James tells us to rejoice during multi-colored (this is the meaning of the word “diverse” in the text) trials, because we know that the hard junk in our lives produces beautiful things when the suffering and struggle is met in our lives with joyous faith in our God. He uses our suffering to bring growth and perseverance in our lives.
4. To glorify God (John 9:1-3) – This is a great story in the Bible. A man who is born blind approaches Jesus. His disciples ask if the man was blind because of his own sin or the sin of his parents. They were functioning out of a world view that determined that all sickness and suffering was a direct act of God’s judgment on your personal sin. That idea had already been thwarted in the Old Testament book of Job. But they still believed it the same. But Jesus declares that his blindness is not because of his or his parent’s sin, but to make him an object of the display of the glory of God. For the follower of Jesus, we must realize that all of our suffering is an opportunity for the glory of God to be on display in our lives, as we respond in worship and hope.
5. To make us like Jesus (Philippians 3:10) – Paul says the goal of his life is to know Christ deeply, and that the path to that is to experience the fellowship of Jesus’ suffering and be conformed to Jesus’ death. Doesn’t sound much like the believe in Jesus and your life will be happy message that is often preached. But Paul reminds us that the path to becoming more like Jesus is often through the path of suffering and hardship.
6. To teach us dependence (II Corinthians 12:7-9) – Paul prayed three times that a thorn in his flesh be removed. Realize that this does not mean that three times he prayed quickly. I think it means he went through three distinct seasons in life where he asked God to remove the source of some issue of pain and suffering in life. We do not know what the thorn in the flesh was. Could have been a physical ailment, or an issue of opposition and persecution. It could have been that he was single and felt alone. We just don’t know, but we do know this, God answered the prayer. But not how Paul wanted. God’s answer was that the thorn was not going to be removed because it was placed there by God to teach Paul humility so that he could realize that God is displayed in our weaknesses much more than in our strengths. The suffering Paul experienced was God’s gift to teach him dependence on God rather than exalting his own strength.
7. To refine our lives (Hebrews 12:28-29) – Our God is a refining fire. Fire burns, and as it burns it removes the things that are temporal, but it also refines the things that are eternal. The author of Hebrews is telling followers of Jesus that they are receiving an eternal Kingdom that cannot be shaken or taken away. The fire of God refines us so that we are ready to know that Kingdom. Our pain and suffering is in a very real way preparation for heaven, the God-given path to remove from us the things that can’t survive in eternity.
8. To remove sin from our lives (I Peter 4:1) – John states that deep suffering for the follower of Jesus will be met with grace from God and will act to remove our sinfulness. We never arrive, but God uses suffering to remove values and habits that lead us into sin.
9. To enlarge our ministry towards others (II Corinthians 1:3-7) – Paul is able to offer the Gospel in the midst of suffering, persecution, and hardship, because he has suffered the same things. He understands and can enter in to their struggle. And he also tells them that their suffering will give them great compassion and a great ministry to others who go through similar hardships in the future. I was recently able to witness this myself, as I heard one person who had been through a specific hardship in life that brought a lot of pain pray over another person going through the same struggle. It was beautiful and so rich.
10. As a method of witness (I Peter 2:12) – Peter has already told the first century church that God is sovereign over their suffering and persecution, but here he tells them that one of the reason God does not stop it is that their response to persecution will be used by God to demonstrate the power of the Gospel and the beauty of Christ to an unbelieving world. Some of the greatest stories of witness have come out of situations where the church was persecuted and suffering.
I’ve already said that this list is not comprehensive. But the goal here is to help us realize that we must trust God when evil and suffering confronts. At the moment we may not understand, and the truth is that for some of our suffering we may not understand God’s redemptive purpose in this life. But this does not mean that God is not working for our good and His glory, and that God does not have a purpose. He is God, we are not. We can pray, cry out, and even question God, but we must also rejoice in suffering and trust in God when we cannot see the reasons. This puts us in a place to see God act as we suffer well for the glory of God.